SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen “No Direction Home,” the Season 5 finale of “Billions.”
“Billions” will get a big reset in its upcoming sixth season as the durable Showtime drama shift its prism on the world of billionaires, vulture capitalists and global high finance.
“Billions” co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien confirm that Damian Lewis has bowed out after five seasons as the show’s central figure, the meglomaniac hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod. Lewis may come back in the future — you can never say never — but Season 6 will move forward with a new king of what was once Axe’s castle, Mike Prince as played by Corey Stoll. In the narrative of “Billions,” “Herr Axelrod,” as Lewis was greeted in his final scene, will cool his heels in Switzerland for a while.
For longtime fans, perhaps the most momentous Season 5 storyline was the gradual move of Axelrod (aka Axe) and Maggie Siff’s Wendy Rhoades toward articulating their long-unstated desire to be together. And just as soon as they did, the season ended on a gut-punch as it became clear that there would be no happy ending (at least not now) for them.
The decision to draw the curtain on the Axe character after season 5 has been about three years in the making, the showrunners confirmed. Levien said that they’ve also known from the get-go of the series that Wendy and Axe would grapple with a forbidden love that could never blossom.
“That never felt like a true ending for those characters,” Levien said. “They don’t get to have the sort of youthful unvarnished romance after all the things they’ve done and been through. They were too much victims of their circumstances to slip away into the sunset. The reality of the world they created is the world that is stopping them from getting together.”
In the finale, as Axe plans his escape, he invites Wendy to join him on the run in Europe. She declines. “You wouldn’t want the version of me that would go,” she tells him. He responds, “If we can’t finish it, we can’t start it.”
The machinations of “Billions” fifth season were characteristically complex, full of double-crosses, shifting alliances, below-the-belt punches and the wordplay that the show has become known for (a highlight of the season was having one character recite lyrics from Van Halen’s “Atomic Punk.”)
Axe is ultimately outmaneuvered in his never-ending jousts in the marketplace by rival billionaire Mike Prince, who tries to present as a kinder, gentler, socially responsible billionaire in contrast to Axe’s unabashedly carnivorous mentality. The season end with Axe tricked into a deal with marijuana kingpin (played by Janeane Garafalo) who is moving both legal and contrabrand weed, which leaves Axe vulnerable to criminal money laundering charges after jockeying to break into cannabis financial services.
Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason remains a pivotal “Billions” character as Taylor Mason, the analytical genius who can spot profit-making opportunities from 30,000 feet but wrestles with their conscience and the consequences of such wealth accumulation. In Season 5, Mason’s idealism is challenged by another idealistic newcomer, Rian (Eva Victor). Taylor vacillates from wanting to take down Axe — and helping Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades in his quest to bring criminal charges against him — to actually feeling sorry rather than triumphant when Axe is cornered.
The upshot of all the plot twists at the end of the hour is that Axe is gone like a complete unknown. Mike Prince buys Axe’s fortune for pennies on the dollar. Axe is spirited out of the country after pretending to board a helicopter to surrender to authorities in Manhattan. Meanwhile, David Costabile’s longtime Axe lieutenant Mike “Wags” Wagner is left to face the legal reckoning and Wendy is distraught after losing Axe on top of having had a rocky romance with temperamental artist Tanner (Frank Grillo) earlier in the season.
“The central theme of the show has always been can anybody resist the temptation of that level of money and power?” Koppelman said. “Can anybody remain even close to their true selves when that much money is at hand? In Season 6, Taylor’s not the only character who is face-to-face with that kind of temptation.”
The shift to Prince and his desire to burnish his humanitarian image is in keeping with the currents in the high net-worth arena. Naturally, Prince is not as squeaky-clean as the image he seeks to project, as viewers learned in Season 5.
The Axelrod character had been probed “from every area, from his professional to his personal idiosyncratic stuff and conspicuous wealth and all the stuff that comes along with the saga of a hedge-fund billionaire,” Levien said. “Over the course of the show the hedge-fund billionaire type has receded and a new form has emerged of people who say they want to take more responsibility for making things better for people and improving the world.”
Stoll, the “House of Cards” and “Girls” alumnus, had long been on Koppelman and Levien’s radar for “Billions.” Prince was not the first role that the showrunners offered to the actor. They’re now very glad that Stoll held out for the one that felt right to him.
“We’d met with him on another part about a month before we offered him Mike Prince,” Koppelman said. “Before he left our office he said ‘Are you sure this is the one?’ It was a four-episode arc and he would have been great in it. He left the office and (Levien) and I looked at each other and said ‘Mike Prince just walked out of here.’ “
Koppelman gives a shout-out to longtime “Billions” casting director Allison Estrin for targeting Stoll and suggesting Garofalo for her small but key role. “She’s just brilliant at her job,” he said of Estrin. “She brings us the most fascinating choices.”
Among other highlights of the conversation with Koppelman and Levien:
** The curve ball of the pandemic did not change the Season 5 storyline. Although production on the season was halted last year in the middle of episode 8, the end result was not much different than that envisioned before COVID-19 became a household word. And Koppelman and Levien are clear that they see decamping to Switzerland as a win for Axelrod.
“If I think about what we were trying to do before we knew the pandemic was going to happen, we were focused on talking about the fact that even with all of his success (Axe) is not feeling engaged, or connected or really alive and free,” Koppelman said. “And he’s a guy who has won and won and won. And it’s not working for him anymore.”
The first time Axe really smiles all season is when he steps out onto the snowy tarmac in the closing moments. “He’s lost 75% of his wealth. He’s lost the connections and the people who are near and dear to him,” Koppelman said. “But you don’t see him smile and lower his shoulders until he’s on the tarmac. He’s found a freedom that he can’t have in America.”
** Koppelman and Levien offered the highest praise for Lewis as true industry professional given the personal tragedy he faced in April when his wife, actor Helen McCrory, died at the age of 52. “In the last episode we knew it was important we had to have all these goodbyes,” Koppelman said. “We couldn’t sell out any of those moments. It was very heavy. It was a moment when getting together with people (as a cast and crew) mattered so much.”
** The thespian chemistry between Dillon and Victor’s Rian was one of the happy developments of Season 5, the showrunners said. Those brainiacs will be back for more quantum theories in Season 6, even though Taylor advised Rian to “run” from the Axe organization before Rian’s libertarian spunk was squashed by copious wealth accumulation.
“With the Taylor character we’ve been very cautious of seeing them on a continuum of exposure to this growing wealth and the carcinogenic effect of that,” Levien said. “Rian gives us another way to look at that.”